CTO Studies Tourism in Trinidad, Tobago

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PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad -- The spotlight fell on the twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago during the Caribbean Tourism Organization's second annual Conference on Sustainable Tourism, held here in April.

Delegates to the event, which used Trinidad and Tobago as a case study, learned about the destination's tourism master plan and major issues surrounding sustainable tourism development there.

Trinidad and Tobago has been slow to develop tourism, relying heavily on the oil industry as the backbone of its economy, according to Carla Noel, director of tourism and vice president of the Tourism and Industrial Development Co. of Trinidad and Tobago (Tidco).

"Within the last four years, we have realized we can't ignore tourism any longer," Noel said, pointing to predictions by the World Tourism Organization of a surge in travel over the next decade.

"We have a product, and we are going to exploit it," she added.

Tidco's tourism master plan is designed to protect the country from overdevelopment, according to Noel.

The plan aims to reposition the destination from the traditional sun, sea and sand image, and to cultivate niche markets.

"Our uniqueness as a tourist destination is secured with a range of ecological and cultural diversities," said Carlos John, chairman of Tidco.

To that end, Trinidad is marketed as a destination for cultural and sporting activities, soft-adventure offerings, cruise tourism and conventions.

Tobago is being positioned as an upmarket destination with an emphasis on scuba diving, weddings and honeymoons, golf and soft-adventure options.

"We're not going after mass tourism," Noel said.

"We are focused on niche markets and on attracting people who respect the social, cultural and physical environments."

So far, the strategy has paid off, according to John.

In 1997, Trinidad and Tobago recorded a 19.5% increase in visitors arrivals over 1996.

In the scuba segment, dive bookings increased from 2,000 in 1995 to more than 10,000 in 1997.

The master plan also addresses the need for controlled development, Noel said, with a total of 5,000 rooms envisioned in Trinidad and 3,000 rooms in Tobago.

The current room count is 1,750 for Tobago and 1,500 for Trinidad.

Noel said development on Tobago must pass rigorous environmental impact assessments, and there will be limits to the size of properties.

Among projects in the works is a 200-room, low-rise Hilton resort on the southwestern coast of Tobago, expected to be finished by the end of 1999.

According to John, Trinidad and Tobago is attracting strong interest from other major players in the industry, including Four Seasons, Marriott and Ritz-Carlton.

Other key factors in developing a sustainable tourism product include community involvement, John said.

"We see the critical role that communities have to play in identifying and developing their own tourism projects, thereby creating that vital sustainable link between the industry and the society at large," he said.

One way in which the government is accelerating growth in the tourism industry is through the Community Tourism Action Program (CTAP).

CTAP is designed to mobilize communities to become involved in tourism development, allowing them to determine and drive their own tourism future, according to Karen Bart-Alexander, tourism awareness specialist for Tidco.

Seven projects are in place: Brasso Seco/Paria Eco Community Tourism Project; Fort Abercromby Historical Park; Maracas Bay Tourism Plan; Grande Riviere Beach Enhancement; Toco Lighthouse Park and Campsite; Belle Blanchisseuse, and Piparo Nature Park.

In addition to marketing and management, efforts range from restoring existing facilities to constructing visitor information centers and clearing nature trails.

While the program enables communities to benefit from tourism development, it also enhances the visitor experience by giving tourists a chance to explore the cultural, natural and historical attributes of the areas, Bart-Alexander said.

"New tour products are being developed, and visitors to Trinidad and Tobago can be exposed to a richer and more rewarding experience," she said.

Another major topic at the conference was the need to develop in an environmentally sensitive manner as well as implement management policies centered around conservation and preservation of natural resources.

In addition to hearing presentations spotlighting efforts of the Environmental Management Authority of Trinidad and the Caribbean Action for Sustainable Tourism program, delegates learned about private developments such as Footprints Eco Resort on Tobago and Paria Springs Nature Lodge on Trinidad.

From design to experience, the underlying philosophy of Footprints, which opened last year, is the preservation and protection of the environment and guest comfort.

For example, the property has maximized the use of local building materials in its villa units and used renewable energy wherever possible.

Paria Springs Nature Lodge, slated to open next year as an element of the Brasso Seco/Paria Eco Community Tourism Project, follows a similar philosophy.

Preserving and harmonizing Trinidad and Tobago's cultural heritage with tourism also played an important part in the conference program.

Two presentations gave delegates an in-depth look at Trinidad's Carnival, and other speeches highlighted events such as the Tobago Heritage Festival.

Rounding out the conference was a variety of study tours to Asa Wright Nature Centre and Lodge, Wild Fowl Trust and Caroni Bird Sanctuary, Trinidad's steel pan yard and Tobago's Bucco Marsh and Bucco Reef.

Tours also visited areas slated for development, including the Chaguaramas peninsula in Trinidad.

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